Many of these appear to have emerged with a degree of spontaneity, involving tens of thousands of citizens who previously were not politically active. Such is their ubiquity that these protests have become a defining feature of modern politics. The revolts embrace a range of causes. Some are about democratic revolution, some about neoliberalism and globalization, some about specific cases of corruption, and others about very local issues.
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If their driving motivations are different, so are their outcomes. Some of the new civic mobilizations have ousted regimes; some have won major concessions from incumbent governments; others have failed in their declared aims. Given this diversity, it is necessary to understand civic activism in a broad sense that includes the activities of formal organizations such as professional NGOs, long-established civil society bodies, looser and newer social movements, individual activists, and local community bodies. Emerging forms of civic activism include protests and less contentious forms of self-organization, embracing both online and offline tactics.
While many allude to growing empowerment, at the same time, there is a more negative side to civil society trends.
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Regimes are imprisoning and even killing greater numbers of civic activists. In addition, these regimes are finding more subtle tactics to make life difficult for civil society organizations. In many parts of the world, the very principle of autonomous and free civil society is under assault, and activists are on the defensive.
Great and varied change is afoot within global civil society. For civic activism, it appears to be both the best and worst of times. The positive dynamics of empowerment and the negative trend of constraints on civil society are interconnected. While there is widespread agreement that global civil society is evolving, there are many uncertainties about how best to conceptualize this change and its significance, impacts, and long-term ramifications.
Some observers celebrate the new activism; others decry the unfocused looseness of its structures and the disruptive imprecision of its aims. Some paint a picture of ever-stronger civic empowerment; others argue that governments increasingly have the upper hand over global civil society. The group has embarked on a regular series of meetings, events, fieldwork, and publications to investigate the nature of the new civic activism in select developing and post-Communist countries with a possible expansion to established Western democracies in the works.
The purpose is not to act as cheerleaders for social movements, but to investigate in an open-minded fashion what the new civic activism really entails and what kind of potential it harbors. This report kicks off this initiative with an overview of emerging forms of civic activism in the eight countries represented in the Civic Activism Network. The authors address what new kinds of civic activism are taking root, what issues new civic actors are focusing on, and how they relate to older civil society forms, especially advocacy and service-delivery NGOs. The countries represented in the network include some high-profile cases that have done the most to spur debates about the new nature of civic activism.
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This includes countries with very contrasting dynamics, but also with useful general commonalities. For instance, social movements and protesters have been powerful enough to push governments out of power in Brazil, Egypt, Thailand, Tunisia, and Ukraine. Yet after they did so, very different forms of activism developed in these countries, and the impact on democracy has varied significantly across the cases. In other countries, increasingly illiberal political contexts have both driven forward a new locally rooted type of civic activism and made life very difficult for the new activists.
Turkey is regularly cited as one of the most emblematic cases of the emergent informal, contentious politics, yet it is also a country where the gains of this activism are proving hard to sustain. This is also true of the otherwise very different cases of India and Kenya. The report presents concise summaries of civil society developments in each of the eight countries.
A concluding chapter draws out the main points of interest from the different countries, compares the cases, and reflects on the broader implications for global civil society. It highlights five crucial characteristics of the emerging civil society: 1 common trends among countries versus unique national qualities, 2 old versus new forms of activism, 3 overarching political versus bread-and-butter practical concerns, 4 liberal versus illiberal identities, and 5 effective versus ineffective forms of activism. This study of civic activism has important implications for both the evolution of domestic political systems and for questions of foreign policy.
It is insufficient today simply to press international institutions, Western powers, and foundations to provide more support. As civil society itself has become such a fluid and varied arena of political and social activity, those keen to support civic activism require a more disaggregated map of how, where, and with whom they should and should not engage. And it is not enough to talk about global civil society either gaining or losing influence in a very generic sense.
Greater precision is required on what civil society actually is and how it is changing. More work is needed on what kind of civic actors are most effective and in tune with their societies. This report aims to contribute to this endeavor. Brazilian civil society stands at an intersection between the past and the future. From the past come the unresolved grievances that have been historically at the heart of the struggles for democracy and equality. Civil society actors remain resolutely focused on equal access to social, economic, and minority rights, as well as the problem of political corruption.
In spite of great advances, these long-standing areas of civic activism are as important today as they were decades ago. Brazilian civic activists are increasingly using significant though still incipient change to project a vision of the future. These changes include more systematic engagement with civic campaigns through the use of new digital technologies, the adoption of novel ways to organize, and the search for new channels to amplify citizen participation within state structures.
New civil society trends in Brazil and across Latin America also flow from and feed into more polarized political landscapes. A cursory dissection of recent mobilizations in Brazil suggests that citizens organize around the same kind of grievances that animated activism in previous decades. In recent years, Brazil has seen a wave of strikes for labor rights and better wages; street protests against political corruption; the occupation of buildings and land by homeless and landless movements; and campaigns for gender equality, better social services, and improvements in human rights.
Yet the ways these mobilizations have been organized and implemented have changed in important ways. Calls for protests now rely on Facebook event pages.
Demands are launched using Twitter hashtags. Blogs and other websites have become key places for activists to deliberate on crowdsourcing strategies and future actions. While some cases of e-mobilization begin and end online, most rely on a combination of old tactics—strikes, street protests, the occupation of buildings—and new digital strategies. Tech-savvy constituencies in Brazil and other Latin American countries, such as Chile and Mexico, have resorted to social media as their primary tool in recent mobilizing efforts.
But, overall, the Internet has had a mixed impact on civil society empowerment in Brazil.
While the Internet offers more opportunities for individuals to educate themselves about public issues and participate in events and campaigns, societal hierarchies have also taken root in online networks. This is, in part, due to the fact that Internet access is still far from universal here, being much higher among those who are more educated and those who live in urban areas.
Furthermore, amid the use of bots, it is a challenge to have quality debates and to restrain the hate speech that thrives online. During the debates about the impeachment of Rousseff, offline political polarization was reproduced and even reinforced by social media. In addition to these challenges, the impacts of so-called slacktivism remain a concern for many civil society organizations. According to many such groups, the ease of liking and sharing information about a variety of civic causes on social media leads only to short-term commitments, without creating the collective identities necessary to build sustainable social movements.
For established organizations, such as the Landless Workers Movement, the individualism of social media activism can threaten a collective ethos that took years to acquire. Emerging civil society organizations have responded in different ways to this new context in Brazil, particularly actors such as collectives, brokers, and hackers. Brazil has a myriad of new collectives—loose organizations of similarly minded activists that focus on single issues, such as racism, gender, and animal or cultural rights. Collectives are organized as small groups that meet in schools, universities, neighborhoods, or workplaces.
Some only have an online presence, such as animal rights groups that help find shelter for abandoned or injured animals through Facebook groups. These institutionalized brokers are not entirely novel forms of organization, but they have grown in number and in relevance. This is because of a trend toward fragmentation seen in certain aspects of civil society.
Participants aim to create more effective collective action by institutionalizing their joint efforts. Another set of civil society actors that is rising particularly fast in Brazil is hacker and free-software activism groups.
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They have mobilized intensively in the past few years through campaigns for new Internet legislation which the Brazilian National Congress approved in and in favor of public policies that promote wider access to information. These new activists seek fundamentally to change decisionmaking patterns, by, for instance, pressuring for the use of online crowdsourcing to create or edit legislative proposals. The initiatives that result from such pressure have potentially important impacts on relations between civil society and the state. Often, these impacts are less visible than the political actions of grassroots movements or nongovernmental organizations NGOs , because such activism is based on more fluid collaborative ties among individuals who occupy different positions—whether in civil society, the parliament, or the state bureaucracy.
A good example is the Free Software Project, 10 which was created in the city of Porto Alegre at the end of the s and brings together scholars, public officials, entrepreneurs, and activists that promote free-software initiatives. Hacktivists do not necessarily join protesters on the streets, but their collective actions speak to a key issue that has been driving mass mobilizations in the past three years: corruption.
In sum, some new forms of civic activism aim to break down campaigns into a plethora of very specific issues, while other forms of activism are about bringing together different opinions. Current relationships between civil society and political parties, in particular, present an interesting paradox. On the one hand, distrust toward political institutions has grown in Brazil and in Latin America as a whole. Public opinion is especially negative toward political parties. Activists often ban the display of party flags or symbols in street protests.
As civil society bodies, such as labor unions and student organizations, distance themselves from political parties, the result has been party leaders having a diminished influence in the leadership elections of these organizations.
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Yet paradoxically, new civil society activists also are participating in the creation of new political parties. More recently, conservative civil society organizations helped found another political party, the Partido Novo the New Party. The most recent initiatives are best understood as second-generation party movements born with renewed promises of less bureaucratic internal governance rules, greater transparency, more innovation, and a commitment to specific social movement agendas.
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Emerging initiatives face a very different political environment from first-generation parties, due to mounting distrust of political institutions in general and of political parties in particular, as well as increased political polarization. While the basic idea that a vibrant civil society is crucial for the consolidation and sustainability of democracy remains valid in Brazil, civil society itself has become increasingly fragmented and internally heterogeneous.
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